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Everything You Need to Know About Carbon Offsets

By Katherine LaGrave

06.04.19

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For an environmentalist who travels, there’s eco-guilt with every flight. Does carbon offsetting make a difference?

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For an environmentalist who travels, there’s eco-guilt with every flight. Does carbon offsetting make a difference?

All those tempting flight deals may be great for the pocketbook, but they sure do take a toll on Mother Earth.

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It’s no secret that flying is terrible for the environment. In fact, the aviation industry makes up 2 percent of global carbon emissions, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and findings in one study concluded that a single round-trip transatlantic flight is responsible for melting 30 square feet of Arctic sea ice. With all that, air travel is only getting more popular: Some 20,000 planes are currently in service, and that number is expected to rise to 50,000 by 2040, according to some estimates.

But short of stopping flying altogether, what can eco-minded travelers do? One common option is to attempt to offset your impact by figuring out how much carbon you generate on a trip and then paying to “take it out” of the atmosphere through various social programs that reduce emissions or produce clean energy. If it sounds simple, it is . . . sort of.

Critics of carbon offsetting say it plays into the capitalist idea that you can fix any problem by throwing money at it. Others say that by “allowing people to buy their way out of eco-guilt,” they’ll feel even more at liberty to fly, and fly again, knowing they can pay their way to making the emissions “disappear.” Putting a number on your emissions, and figuring out how much they cost the environment, is also sticky business.

It’s worth keeping these criticisms in mind. And while carbon offsetting isn’t the only thing you can do (we present more tips here), every little bit helps, say those on the other side of the aisle. “By investing in credible, verified offsets, everyone can help compensate for the pollution associated with their travel and contribute to solutions to the climate crisis,” says Peter Miller, a carbon offsets expert at the NRDC. “Well-designed and implemented offset projects can cut emissions and provide important benefits to local communities.”

Here, we dive into everything you need to know about carbon offsetting.

How to Find out How Much Carbon You Produce

There are a number of websites where you can crunch your carbon numbers, but we’re partial to San Francisco–based company TerraPass for its ease of use. Users can calculate their carbon production by putting in specific flight details, or estimates for the numbers of miles traveled, gallons of fuel use, or average trip length. The site also lets travelers add multiple flights and will then email them an emissions profile once it has done the math, which usually takes around a minute.

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Best for those who really love details, German company atmosfair has one of the most specific carbon calculators we’ve seen, with entry fields for plane type, flight type (charter or scheduled), and flight class. This fine print matters: According to a 2013 study from the World Bank, emissions from a business-class seat are about three times as much as one in economy (finally, a reason to feel better about those shrinking seats).

If you’d rather take care of your carbon offsetting through your chosen carrier, you’re in luck: Some airlines will even let you determine your carbon emissions from their flights before or after booking (more on that below).

How to Donate to Carbon Offsetting

When you’ve got the commensurate dollar amount and are ready to donate, there are plenty of companies with programs that pledge to offset your carbon. But not all actually make an immediate impact, like most tree-planting initiatives: Young trees are too small to take any meaningful amounts of carbon out of the air and take decades to reach maturity. There’s also the issue of permanence: How is the company vowing to protect trees from dying or from being chopped down?

To find a program that will put your reductions to work right now, seek out certified and vetted options from reputable environmental organizations like Gold Standard, Green-e, and Climate Action Reserve. All have projects listed by location and offset type (like a renewable wind power generation project in India, for instance), which means you’ll be able to choose a cause close to your interests. (Note: Different projects charge different amounts for offsetting.) Look, too, for transparency: Any reputable purveyor of offsets will also be specific about what it is funding and how it calculates donation amounts.

What Airlines Are Doing About It

As AFAR’s Michelle Baran previously reported, U.S. airlines are finally making serious moves when it comes to offsetting carbon. It’s no wonder: In 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) introduced an agreement for all international flight growth after 2020 to be carbon neutral, which means airlines will soon be fully responsible for offsetting their emissions. Miller notes, “We need all airlines to offer them [carbon offsets] and make them easily accessible for fliers so travel offsets become as common as airport security.”

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Many airlines are already making significant strides. After launching its first carbon offset program in 2007, Delta has pledged to keep its carbon emissions to 2012 levels via the purchase of offsets. (This is commendable, but the airline will still pump millions of metric tons of emissions into the atmosphere simply because it continues to fly.) The airline has a carbon calculator on its website, and it allows travelers to see the emissions they’re generating and then donate miles or money to the Nature Conservancy. The carbon offsetting–related projects of the Nature Conservancy include preservation of a 15,558-acre conservation area in northwest Belize and 22,000 acres in southwestern Virginia’s Clinch Valley.

Last September, United became the first U.S. airline to commit to cutting its emissions by half come 2050. Via a partnership with Sustainable Travel International, the airline’s Eco-Skies CarbonChoice Program lets travelers determine their carbon emissions and donate money or miles to independently verified carbon offset projects.

Through its partnership with carbonfund.org, JetBlue also allows travelers to calculate their footprint and donate to offset their flights; Alaska Airlines—the most fuel-efficient U.S. airlinealso partners with carbonfund.org.

In addition, many leading international carriers, including Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Austrian, Lufthansa, Japan Airlines, and Air New Zealand, support carbon offsetting and have a variety of different partners and initiatives. Cathay Pacific’s “Fly Greener” program, for example, lets travelers donate money or miles to the airline’s two current offset projects: converting animal waste into clean energy in Vietnam and supporting efficient cookstoves in India. Still, no matter what airlines do, it doesn’t mean you’re off the hook.

What Else You Can Do

If you’re intent on flying, book a nonstop: according to a 2010 report from NASA, 25 percent of a flight’s emissions are produced during takeoff and landing, which means the more legs you fly, the worse it is. Also aim to pack light, which lightens a plane’s overall weight and means less fuel burned and therefore fewer carbon emissions.

In a previous AFAR story about ethical travel, Justin Francis, cofounder of Responsible Travel, also suggested cutting down on air travel, traveling by train, or taking fewer, longer holidays. “They’re all worthwhile efforts, but they’re tough asks, with some impractical compromises,” said Francis. “What I can say is that if we all stopped traveling, there would be consequences, too. One in 10 jobs around the world is in travel and tourism. It’s an important part of the economy, particularly in developing countries.”

But it’s more than that: Beyond aiding the economy, travel also provides important cultural, educational, and emotional connections. With a little more effort and intent, then, it’s worth following these steps to make sure your next trip is not only good for you, but better for the environment, too.

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